Tag Archives: mariano rivera

A Curtain Call for Captain Clutch

25 Sep

Derek Jeter was my childhood hero, the first and greatest of my various sports man-crushes. I became a Yankee fan because of him. I’d go to bed cuddling a Jeter beanie baby bear, and I copied his stance in backyard baseball. I was crushed when I learned that lefties don’t play shortstop. (End the discrimination!) I admired his versatility, his prowess in every facet of the game, and in his life off the field, too. He may not be the greatest player ever, but he was certainly baseball’s most enduring champion in my lifetime, and his likes may never be seen again. He was the face of one of the most recognizable franchises in all of sport, enduring the brutality of New York scrutiny for twenty years, and in an era when many baseball stars were besmirched by the steroid scrutiny, he remained a pillar of decency.

Only in retrospect did I realize how much Derek helped form my ideal of what a man should be. Patient and respectful, words always carefully measured, yet consumed by a relentless drive toward greatness. Classy, and with an appreciation for finer things, though not overboard in flaunting it; just living it as it came, naturally, and with pride. A commitment to a clean and decent image, though not afraid to have a bit of fun, too. In hearing from the many fans of other teams who poured out their respect to Jeter this season, I felt a childish bit of possessiveness: Derek never meant to you what he meant to me. He was my idol in my fullest sense of the word, exactly the diversion a lost little eight-year-old needed, and while I grew older and deeper and stopped looking to sports for heroes, he never did anything to betray that trust.

At the heart of the Jeter mystique was his flair for the dramatic, something that made his 9th inning walk-off in his final Yankee Stadium game all too predictable. He had something others didn’t. Just reflect on that list of moments. There was his rookie season in 1996, when he always seemed to be the catalyst of every Yankee rally, most famously on that home run assisted by an 11-year-old; by 1999, he was one of the greatest offensive weapons in the game. His home run on the first pitch of Game 4 of the 2000 World Series snuffed out any momentum the Mets might have had after finally beating the Yankees, and that Subway Series left no doubt who was the king of New York. He’d built a dynasty, and was the face of the greatest run by a major sport franchise in 40 years. Perhaps his greatest moments came in 2001, when he made that sublime flip play in the ALDS against Oakland, a play whose ingenuity I never expect to see topped. His “Mr. November” home run that year won the 4th game of one of the greatest World Series ever played, an emotionally draining and ultimately crushing run in the shadow of 9/11.

That was hardly the end, though. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS is synonymous with Aaron Boone, but the man who started it all was Jeter, who cranked a double with the Yankees down by three in the eighth to ignite the game-tying rally. While the team imploded against Boston in 2004, he was still fighting to the end, showing some rare extra emotion when swatting a key hit in Game 7. The Yankees’ fortunes dwindled over the rest of the decade, their fate tied to increasingly worse pitching and stars who had no measure of Jeterian class, but there was still room for one last spurt of brilliance in 2009, when he collected his fifth ring. Naturally, his 3,000th hit left the park; even when the injuries began to mount, it seemed like every return to action was punctuated by some little reminder of that flair.

Over the years the worship of Derek’s clutch performance became near universal, and the gushing at times went overboard; in turn, there arose a group of snarky critics who pointed out the flaws in his game—his lack of range, his inevitable gradual decline, and the emptiness of that vague, undefined ‘clutch’ adjective. No wonder that by the end it all became a bit tired, a perfunctory string of praise in which everything there was to say had already been said. It didn’t help that Mariano Rivera had gone through the same retirement rigmarole the year before Jeter, and that the team he captains, too, seemed a bit tired. Jeter leaves the Yankees in a state unworthy of his legacy, an iconic franchise sliding into mediocrity due to its failure to nurture that farm system that once produced Jeter and Rivera. The end of these farewell tours lifts a burden from the shoulders of this franchise, and frees them to take the first few steps into a very different era of baseball.

Losing was new and foreign to Jeter, and at times his steadiness in the face of it all seemed aloof and uncertain. Beneath the façade was a man with an unshakable belief in his own self, and unlike the serene Rivera, aging did not come naturally to him. His career paralleled the passing of the years that so many of us go through: invincible in his youth, living the dream and building that legacy before he had to come to terms with the steady march of time, the realization that he was no longer the man he once was. Time was the last and greatest enemy that not even Jeter’s mystique could conquer. But it couldn’t kill those memories, nor prevent another chapter in that fairy tale life from writing itself every now and then. As with Rivera’s stirring sendoff last year, tonight’s Yankee Stadium finale was a homage to all that is good in sports, one that can send us back into childhood without a hint of shame. Dream and reality blur, and whatever we call that state in between, it’s one of pure delight.

I’ve heard a few other Yankees fans say that Jeter’s retirement marks the end of their childhood. I’m not sure how my own story lines up with that, but it was hard not to feel another little twinge of age tonight. Tonight, when I got the goosebumps and, yes, the hints of tears when Bob Sheppard’s immortal voice echoed through Yankee Stadium for the last time ever: “Now batting for New York, numbah two, Derek. Jetah. Numbah two.”

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A Hero in a Sport without Heroes: Farewell, Mariano Rivera

26 Sep

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I’ve been meaning to write a post on the impending retirement of Mariano Rivera ever since I started this blog. Much to the chagrin of my Minnesotan friends, I grew up a diehard Yankees fan, and my earliest baseball memories are of their late 1990s dynasty. Derek Jeter was, naturally, my childhood idol, and I still have a deep respect the Yankee captain; I’m sure I’ll write some glowing words when he retires, too. But as I grew older and more jaded, my pantheon of athletes whom I was willing to call a hero slowly shrank to include just one man. That man is Mariano Rivera.

Writing this post wasn’t easy, in large part because I’m not sure what I have to say that hasn’t already been said. Dave D’Alessandro wrote a masterful column about Rivera in 2011, and the god of all sportswriters, the 93-year-old Roger Angell, used Sunday’s game to remind the rest of us mere mortals of our places. I could trail on about his dominance, both across 19 regular seasons and 16 postseasons, or wax about that single pitch he used to it all, that untouchable cutter. There are the five World Series championships, the All-Star games, and the admirable sendoffs heaped upon him by his opponents over the course of this season’s long good-bye. (The Twins’ “chair of broken dreams,” made entirely of bats broken by Rivera’s cutter, was the best gift he got.) There are also those few moments when some emotion snuck out from behind his serene façade, like when he flopped over in exhausted ecstasy on the Yankee Stadium mound after three shutout innings in the 2003 ALCS against Boston, or his composure when the Red Sox finally got to him the next year. There is also his winning smile, his profound faith, his care for his Panamanian hometown, and his farewell tour in which he spent time with the unrecognized workers and fans at every park. D’Alessandro nails it: Rivera’s statistics are phenomenal, but he became the most universally adored ballplayer in an otherwise troubled era because of his character, his class, and his dignity.

Better writers who know Rivera far better than I do have told those stories superbly, so I’ll settle for simply sharing a memory. I’ve been to a ton of baseball games over the years, including a number of very memorable ones; many stars in their prime have had great days, and I’ve seen some extra-inning marathons and some brutal weather. I saw one of Roger Clemens’ tries at a 300th win in person, and any Yankees fan’s first trip to Yankee Stadium (the old one in particular, though the first visit to the new one was pretty cool, too) has to rank right up there among one’s favorite baseball moments.

But my most cherished memory is one that, on the surface, appears utterly mundane. It happened during my first ever Yankees game, a 2000 win against the Twins. The game itself was smooth sailing for the Yankees, and the paltry Metrodome crowd included more backers of the Bronx Bombers than loyalists to the hometown team. My seat, however, was not terribly far from the Yankee bullpen, and in the top of the ninth, the last ballplayer to ever wear number forty-two rose to his feet and began to warm up.

It was as if the entire game behind him had stopped. My ten-year-old self was absolutely mesmerized. While Rivera was great at the time, he was still a few years away from being as universally lauded as he is today. But even then, there was something different about him. His windup was swift and graceful, yet he unleashed the ball with so much power that it popped in the catcher’s glove in a way no other pitcher’s did. He was the platonic ideal of a ballplayer, and only a handful of other modern athletes can match that blend of dominance and aesthetic beauty embodied by the lanky Panamanian with a soothingly smooth name. Perhaps Lionel Messi, though he still has years to go before he is on Rivera’s level of consistency; perhaps Roger Federer in his prime, but he rose and then began to decline all while Rivera kept plugging away. He leaves the game at age 43, just as dominant as he was when he first settled into his setup role in 1996. It is never fun to watch a former great tail off and struggle some at the end of his career with some other team, as with Michael Jordan or Brett Favre; Rivera didn’t do that. He simply remained Mariano Rivera.

No one does ceremonies quite like the Yankees, and Rivera had his Lou Gehrig moment in front of the fans last Sunday in the Bronx. They trotted out all of the greats of the 1990s dynasty, deluged him in gifts, unveiled his Monument Park plaque, brought in Metallica to give a live rendition of “Enter Sandman,” and even Jackie Robinson’s family took the field to honor the man worthy of being the last to ever wear wearing Jackie’s number. It went for fifty minutes, yet Rivera’s surprise and gratitude never wavered. On the same day, Yankee great Andy Pettitte made his final home start in the Bronx, and he was almost an afterthought. Yet Pettitte wanted it that way, and in fact only announced his retirement because Rivera told him to; so great was his respect for Rivera that he didn’t want to steal a second of his time.

Gehrig called himself the “luckiest man on the face of the earth” to be showered with such praise, but with Mariano, one got the sense that there was never all that much luck involved. He is a reminder of everything that is good about sports; the sort of human being who deserves every ounce of recognition and fame he’s received, a poor Panamanian kid who used a silly game to make something of himself, and to inspire millions.

His mantra was a simple one.

I know where I come from. And when you always have in mind where you come from, the rest will be easy.

We’re going to miss you, Mariano.

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Photos from yankees.com.

 

As A-Rod’s World Turns

5 Aug

New York Yankees radio broadcaster John Sterling, a jovial if somewhat pompous fellow well-suited for the Yankee ethos, is known for his personalized, colorful home run calls for each Yankee batter. Over the past ten years, he has used two different calls on Alex Rodriguez’s 302 homers in pinstripes, one of which now seems more apt than Sterling ever could have guessed: “Alexander the Great Conquers Again!”

A-Rod’s story is, indeed, like that of the famed Greek king. For years he was baseball’s golden boy, the hero who seemed destined to shatter the all-time home run record. He conquered Seattle, he conquered Texas, and won himself the richest contract in the history of American professional sports. When he was traded to the Yankees—baseball’s greatest stage—it looked like one last step to securing his spot on the baseball Acropolis.

The first five years of his tenure in New York complicated the narrative somewhat. He put up some huge numbers, yes, but he also struggled mightily in the playoffs—the only thing that really matters in Yankee lore—and never quite managed to be the model citizen his teammates Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera were (and are). The scrutiny only increased when he opted out of his contract after the 2007 season, a bungled affair in which Rivera eventually convinced A-Rod to ditch his agent and declare his intent to stay in the Bronx. His new contract—even larger than his earlier record-setting deal—was negotiated directly with the Yankee ownership, went over the head of General Manager Brian Cashman, and locked A-Rod into a Yankee uniform into his 40s.

In 2009, his story grew even more complicated: first, he admitted to using steroids back during his days in Texas. But the supposedly clean A-Rod then went on to carry his team to a World Series title, finally shaking off the ‘playoff flop’ tag. Perhaps Alexander the Great had finally purged himself of his past sins and would be able to build a lasting legacy.

It wasn’t to be. First, his performance began to decline, and injuries started to mount; now, A-Rod has been suspended by Major League Baseball through the 2014 season for his ties to the Biogenesis steroid clinic. Like most all mythic Greek heroes, A-Rod’s quest for greatness has led him to reach too far, and he now must pay the price for his sins. The hero’s hubris has destroyed him.

In a typical twist of A-Rod oddness, the suspension came down on the day he will play his first game for the Yankees in 2013. After an injury rehab stint so long that some suspected the Yankees were trying to keep him off the field intentionally—Cashman, the GM who didn’t really want him back in 2007, at one point publicly told A-Rod to “shut the fuck up” when he seemed to contradict the Yankee doctors—he will finally take the field in Chicago tonight. He will appeal the suspension, which means he’ll be playing for the foreseeable future.

His return will make the next two months a complete circus for a Yankee team desperately trying to stay in the playoff picture. On the one hand, the Yankees’ third basemen this season have been atrocious, and even a shell of a past A-Rod will likely be an upgrade. But despite his real upside in that sense, it is clear that no one wants him here. His team’s front office almost certainly wishes the Commissioner’s Office had gone through with its threat to ban A-Rod for life, thus freeing the Yankees of his burdensome contract. His teammates say all of the right things, but even the unflappable Rivera grew peeved at reporters last night, when the only thing they asked him about was A-Rod’s impending return. A-Rod was never a popular figure with the Yankee fan base, and though 2009 will keep him from landing in the Yankee Ring of Hell with the likes of Carl Pavano and Kevin Brown, he’s now in a purgatory that will require a mythic performance if he has any hope of escaping. And that is his own team: for the rest of baseball he is a pariah, all of the worst suspicions about his questionable character now confirmed.

Even if he puts the Yankees in his back for the rest of this season, even if his appeal is successful, A-Rod’s legacy is now secure. He could have tailed off after 2009 and slumped to an early retirement; while perhaps not beloved, he would have been respected as a pretty good hitter, perhaps worthy of some sympathy both for the media that marked him as a target and his earnest desire to win that messed with his head when he came to the plate in October. Instead, he struck out again, and cost himself even the defenders who were willing to give him breaks through his playoff struggles and off-field escapades (of which I was one). A-Rod is now the player who got a doctor whom he had never to met—a man once disciplined by the state of New Jersey for irregularities in the prescription of steroids—to go on the interview circuit contradicting his team’s claims about his health.

And so the A-Rod saga has now become a full-fledged soap opera; the sort of macabre spectacle that baseball fans will claim to hate all while riveting themselves to each and every new detail. He has become bigger than his team and bigger than the game, but he still stubbornly believes he can win everyone over and reclaim some of that past glory. Most likely he is deluded, though one never truly knows when it comes to legendary figures. Thinking of A-Rod in such abstract terms may be the only way for Yankees fans to cope with their returning third baseman, as they certainly cannot embrace him as they do with their other stars. The man is now a myth, a lesson to us all of the dangers of excess, one whose ongoing story may reveal yet more about the endless human capacity for self-deception. For all the undeserved fixations over the trivial details of A-Rod’s life, for all of the possibly troublesome tactics the Commissioner’s Office used in its push to find itself a scapegoat for the steroid era it so badly mismanaged, he will deserve every boo he hears.